Sunday, June 17, 2012

Family values

Text: Mark 3 20-35 (Jesus and his family)

In the last two weeks, I've been to three different church meetings. On June 6, I travelled to Saskatoon for a one-day meeting called "Prairie Mosaic: an Intercultural Ministry Event." The day after, Joan Miller and I represented Borderlands in the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church of Canada. The annual meeting ended last Sunday with a "Service of Praise" at 3rd Avenue United Church in Saskatoon and where three new ministers were ordained or recognized. Then, this past Thursday I travelled to Swift Current for my first meeting as a member of the Executive of Chinook Presbytery. I have agreed to be the next Secretary of our Presbytery; and my duties will begin as soon as I return from vacation in mid-July.

After one year as an ordained minister here in Borderlands, my curiosity about the current state of the church continues to run high. Participating in these meetings helps to satisfy this curiosity and it also helps me to imagine what might be next for us as a church, a pastoral charge, and as a congregation.

Congregations often call ourselves a family of faith. Given today's reading from Mark about Jesus and his family; given that today is Father's Day; and given some thoughts inspired by the church meetings I attended over the last few weeks, today's sermon is about faith communities seen as families.

Jesus is at odds with his family in the reading from Mark today. His family fears that Jesus is out of his mind, and they want to restrain him. When Jesus is later told that his mother, brothers and sisters have come to the house where he is staying and are asking for him, he does not go to them. Instead, he says that his true mother, brothers and sisters are the people surrounding him: those who do the will of God.

In this instance, Jesus rejects his blood relations in favour of the motley crew of students, friends and sinners who are drawn to him and his healing and teaching. In the face of his family's fears that he is insane, Jesus creates a new family, a family of fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith, hope and love.

Perhaps we are trying to do something similar here in this congregation. Perhaps we are trying to create a new family for ourselves, a motley crew of pilgrims and sinners that supplements or even replaces our families of origin.

For most of us, family occupies a central place. But despite the love shared between parents, children, brothers, sisters and other family members, I imagine many of us here today have experienced pain and conflict in our families. When I was a young man, I might even have wondered if my parents or my siblings were sometimes out of their minds and needed to be restrained! At that time, I was pleased to join with friends and comrades in households and sub-cultures that felt like a new family of choice, a family that in some ways replaced the one in which I had been raised.

But as I have grown older, my original family has become central again. On Monday evening, I fly to Toronto to begin four weeks of vacation, and the first person I will visit will be my mother. Then next weekend, I and my four siblings, our partners and some of my nieces and nephews will gather for an annual family reunion at a little resort about a ninety minute drive east of Toronto. This will be the fifth reunion at which we commemorate our father, who died five years ago on June 27, 2007.

I look forward to the reunion very much even though it involves grief as we continue to mourn the loss of our father. These reunions have an extra charge for me, I believe, since it was in my eulogy for my father at his funeral five years ago that I first declared my own call to ministry. Two months after that funeral, I was taking courses full-time at Emmanuel College. And now here I am five years later delivering the final sermon of my first year as your settled minister.

My own situation reminds me a little of the stories of Jesus and his family in the Gospels -- how one's family of origin can sometimes come into conflict with a chosen family of faith and how at other times the two weave tightly into each other. In my case, it has always seemed to be a bit of both . . .

If church congregations are similar to Jesus and his friends and sometimes function as a substitute family, then what does the current state of our church tell us about our efforts to live in church families of faith, hope and love?

To discuss this question, I look at the three church meetings I attended this past two weeks. I was very glad to be at all three even though there were things about them that I didn't like. One theme running through all three was the continuing decline of the United Church of Canada and the growing secularism of our culture.

At Prairie Mosaic, we confronted the fact that the United Church was founded as an overwhelmingly WASP church 87 years ago, while Canada today becomes less WASP with each passing year.

At the Saskatchewan Conference annual meeting we learned that nine churches closed in our province during the past year. Given that Saskatchewan only contains one million of Canada's 33 million people, I wonder if this fact means that approximately 250 United Church sanctuaries were closed across Canada this past year. If so, that would be a far higher figure than I had previously heard.

Before the Service of Praise last Sunday, I spoke with a member of the large pick-up choir that sang an anthem in that service. I remarked on the beauty and grandeur of 3rd Ave United Church, which is 100 years old and which seats about 1,000 people. She noted that this church and its neighbouring cathedral church, Knox United, which is only five blocks away, are both struggling with small congregations and rising bills. She wondered if fundamentalist churches had something on offer that the United Church does not since several of her children worshipped in such congregations. But she also realized that of her circle of friends, she was the only one who had children who still attended church.

At the Presbytery Executive meeting on Thursday we heard about the closing of yet another United Church -- Grandview United in Moose Jaw -- and we talked about a another pastoral charge in our Presbytery that probably should close. It is a church that no longer has a minister, regular worship services, or the ability to pay dues to Presbytery. But despite the moribund state of this charge, the one family still supporting that church cannot yet bear to close it.

Finally, this week my mother pointed me to a article in the Toronto Star newspaper about the closing of Trinity Anglican church in the little town of Colborne Ontario near her childhood home. Colborne is where my mother attended school and church as a girl, and where her mother retired and died. The beautiful Anglican church there was 166 years old, and a fierce fight was waged to keep it open. But the central church office had decided that it can no longer afford to subsidize small and declining congregations.

Beyond the theme of decline, there was the actual experience of the meetings. I agreed with a statement of Marie Wilson, who is one of the three Commissioners on Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and who gave an hour-long address to the annual meeting about the TRC and its work. She said that as soon as she entered the hall filled with 300 ministry and lay delegates to the annual meeting, she felt right at home.

Wilson is a longtime member of Yellowknife United Church, so she knows and appreciates the warmth and empathy that is usually evident at United Church gatherings. I felt the same warmth when I arrived in Swift Current this past Thursday. I felt honoured to be included as one of the 12 gathered at First United.

Beyond Marie Wilson's remarks at the annual meeting, which I found both informative and moving, I also enjoyed the theme presentations by past Moderator David Guiliano and Rev. Nancy Ferguson; the small table group discussions; and the final worship service where 500 people filled 3rd Avenue United, especially Rev. Guiliano's sermon, and the choir of 50 people, which I joined for that service.

But there was much in the meeting that annoyed or frustrated me. I wish that we had spent less time on presentations, which could have been watched at home on the Internet; less time debating resolutions; less time trying to improve the grammar and wording of resolutions, and so on.

Given how expensive it is to bring 300 ministry and lay delegates from across the province to spend three days together, I would have appreciated more time in worship, in small group sharing, and in open-ended airing of feelings and best practices about the challenges facing our congregations, our church, and our world.
I did get inspiration for worship and work here in Borderlands from the annual meeting and the two others I attended. But I wish the meetings had often had a different character than they did.

On the other hand, running a large meeting of a church Conference, Presbytery, or even a single congregation can also present big challenges.

Even crafting worship for one small pastoral charge has been a challenge for me this past year. I welcome the challenge. I feel privileged to have the honour of preaching the good news here each week; and I am grateful for the presence of all of us here and for everyone else who keeps the United Church's ministry alive and well here in Borderlands. At the same time, I am also glad to now have four weeks off in which to reflect upon our first year in our ministry together and to seek inspiration for new ways in which we might be able to worship in and serve our three towns.

To close, I want to hold up an example of a chosen family that truly did inspire me this past week. Perhaps my choice will surprise you: it is the musical group, "The Pickers," whom I heard again on Friday night at the Coronach Health Centre. But I hope you will bear with me as I explain.

Marlene Hvorka invited me to a Father's Day BBQ at the Centre so that I could be a surrogate son to Dan Chornanky, who, like me, has no children of his own. I was glad to be there for many reasons: I enjoy spending time with Dan. I enjoyed the food. I got to meet more members of the families of the residents, including the family of Raymond Nelson, which continues to mourn the recent death of Raymond and Irene's daughter, Gail Aust. And finally, I got to hear The Pickers again.

On Friday evening, the music seemed particularly sweet to me. There was an accordion, a fiddle, three guitars, a piano, and a rotating group of singers. The music they sang reflected the inter-cultural reality of our towns: Irish, French, English, tin-pan alley, and country and western. Although the group is ageing, they were very spirited and lively. They lifted our spirits.

The Pickers clearly love to make music together, which they do in a loose and improvisational style. I am confident that they are also energized by their service to groups like the residents of the health centres.

To my mind, they are a good model of what a faith community can be -- a chosen family of friends who do what they love in service to their community and who provide space for many voices and kinds of music.

When seeking inspiration for worship, service and community-building, I believe that in the future my mind might sometimes drift back to The Pickers. I hope to keep their example -- and their music -- in mind as I start my second year in ministry here in Borderlands after my vacation in July . . .

Today is Father's Day, which is a time to remember the importance of family and the presence of the God who is Love in the heart of any family worthy of that name. We also remember the chosen family of Jesus and his friends who provide a model for us in this family of faith.

My prayer for us as we look forward to another year in ministry is that we will also be inspired by role models like The Pickers: a faithful group who share the load, welcome input from different cultures, sing together loosely and sweetly, and serve their neighbours by reminding them of our deepest and most sacred values.

As this congregation continues to do God's will through the grace of  Christ's Spirit, let us give thanks for all such examples in our midst who show us how to let the good news roll.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

How can we keep from singing?

Text: John 3 1-17 (born from above)

Before worship, I provided the following preamble to the service, which I reproduce here:

"We turn to the lighting of our Christ Candle. But before that, I have a few words about today's sermon, about Trinity Sunday, and about some current events.

So far in my fledgling career as a minister, I believe that my sermons have sometimes suffered from a lack of stories. Stories are a common and effective way to make the message of a sermon more memorable, perhaps stories from everyday life, the life of the preacher, or the life of the community. Like all of us, I am drawn to storylines in movies, in books, and in conversation. It is by telling our stories that we come to understand our own lives. And the Bible contains a wonderful richness of stories. And yet so far in my sermons, I am more prone to write about history than about a story; and to write about ideas rather than narratives.

Trinity Sunday -- which, for some obscure reason, is celebrated in most churches today -- is one where I feel more justified to prepare a teaching sermon than a story-filled sermon. The Trinity is a doctrine or teaching of the church, and today is the only Sunday in the whole church year that is dedicated to a doctrine rather than to a story from the life of Jesus or the life of Israel.

As I rolled these ideas around in my head this week, I wondered what stories might be at the top of mind in our communities this week. Unfortunately, the answer is probably the media reports of three murders in Canada this past week: the murder-suicide of a young woman originally from Assiniboia and her son by her husband, a young man from St. Walbourg Saskatchewan; the lurid murder of a student from China by a man in Montreal; and then just yesterday a third murder in a seemingly random shooting in Toronto's Eaton Centre Mall. In an average week, about 10 Canadians are murdered. But this has not been an average week, and these three crimes stand out for lots of reasons.

My hope is that some good might come from reports of tragic murders and suicides. Many of us have suffered tragic losses in our lives, and perhaps the discussions dominating our media this week might help us continue to work through our own losses. Many of us also live in families dealing with mental illness. And now this week, we have the stories of three very troubled men in the public eye.

On the other hand, I am disturbed by much of the media coverage. The alleged murderer in Montreal clearly craves attention more than anything else and he is doing a brilliant job in getting that attention. But should we give it to him? The world is filled with terrible problems and no end of tragic deaths. So I question why some violent and tragic deaths are considered more newsworthy than others.

I believe that a different preacher would be able to weave these three terrible stories into a sermon based on our Gospel reading today. But I did not feel up to that challenge. By Thursday, I had already drafted a sermon on the Trinity for the monthly service at Rolling Hills Lodge, which seemed to work OK, and it is a version of that sermon that I will offer today.

But having now mentioned these three heavily reported murder cases in Canada this week, I want to acknowledge our wishes, hopes and prayers inspired by these cases as we prepare for worship . . .

Today, we will pray that the families of the victims receive the community and spiritual support they need to wrestle with their terrible and painful losses. We will pray that all of us who have been horrified by the reports of these crimes or thrown back into our own grief by them will feel the presence of God's Spirit supporting and comforting us. Finally, we will pray that better systems for identifying and treating people with terrible psychological wounds might be developed . . .

So as I light our candle today, I imagine that its light could represent the Spirit of Christ which guides all the many victims of violent and painful deaths home to God's Love from which we have all come. So be it. Amen."


Where do our ideas about God come from? And why do these ideas sometimes sound so strange?

In doing research on Trinity Sunday, I learned that many congregations around the world recite a 5th Century Creed called the Athanasian Creed today.

Here is a bit of that Creed: "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit."

That was just the first 75 of the 600 words of this long creed. I am reminded of a song from the musical "My Fair Lady" which says, "Words, words words! I'm so sick of words. Don't talk of love, show me!"

I prefer the simpler and shorter United Church Creed written in the 1960s. In one sentence it describes the Trinity as follows:

"We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit." It might not be as impressive as the Athanasian Creed, but I find it more useful.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible, though some passages in the Bible contain hints that might lead to it. Take, for instance, today's Gospel reading. In it, Jesus tells Nicodemus about a second birth, a birth from above that is born of water and the Spirit. In this passage, Jesus as the Son of God tells us how God gives us new life through the power of the Spirit in the many baptisms of life. The passage, which is one of the most important and best loved passages in all of Bible, mentions all three aspects of God.

Despite such hints, the doctrine of the Trinity does not come from the Bible. Rather it comes from the worship life of the first Christians. They had experienced Jesus risen from the dead. As devout Jews, these first followers of Christ believed in One God. Yet they also found themselves worshipping Christ as God. So if Christ was God, and his Father was God, were there two Gods or still only one? And what about the the Holy Spirit, whom God sent on Pentecost, and who gave them power to worship and serve?

It was their experience of worshipping Jesus as God through the power of the Spirit that led early Christians to think of God as both One and Three at the same time. The experiences of new life and worship came first. The fancy words came later.

The same is true for us. We don't believe in God because of ancient creeds. Nor do we believe in God just because of the stories in the Bible. We believe in God because of our life experiences: experiences of brokenness followed by new life; experiences of love; even experiences of loss and grief. When, with grace, we remember our deepest values, we are aware of how much in life we hold sacred. And from the heart of experiences of the sacred -- within, between and around us -- we develop our image of God.

Our sacred moments might include the pure joy of being physically alive. They might be experiences of working with others to try and make the world a better place. They might be experiences of falling in love, getting married and raising children. And as for the first Christians, these sacred moments can be seen by us from different angles.

Some of these moments are internal: quiet prayer; walking alone on a wooded trail; or reading an inspiring book. Some of them are communal, such as joining our voices in song in church. Still others might feel cosmic: being aware of how vast and intricate the universe and the web of life are within which we live and move and have our being.

And so as Christians, we both gratefully accept the stunning vision of our Jewish brothers and sisters that God is One and Almighty; and we also experience new life in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Together, these insights lead us to understand the Sacred, the Divine, or God as a unity within diversity; a unity that might best be described as a One in Three, or a Trinity.

Here is yet another way to speak about the Trinity from a 2006 United Church statement of faith. It is called "A Song of Faith," and it begins:

"God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship . . . With the Church through the ages, we speak of God as one and three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; God, Christ, and Spirit; Mother, Friend, and Comforter; Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; and in other ways that speak faithfully of the One on whom our hearts rely . . . We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love."

I recommend the entire "A Song of Faith." I like the fact that it uses the metaphor of song as both the source of our beliefs and as a way to express our beliefs.

We often experience the sacred when we sing together. Sacred songs lead us to feel what we believe; and such feelings are more important to us than our attempts to articulate the Holy Mystery, which we name as God.

"A Song of Faith" several times repeats the line: "And so we cannot keep from singing." This refrain is taken from the great 19th Century American Hymn, "My Life Flows On," which we will sing at the end of this sermon.

Now of course, not every hymn sung in church will connect us to the sacred, any more than will every moment with our children, every moment volunteering at a food bank, or every walk in the woods. But we know that by God's grace, sacred moments occur again and again. In those moments, we are able to remember that our lives are supported by God, the Holy One and the Holy Three: and this support comes from the God who is within, between, and beneath us.

Our Gospel reading from John today reminds me of a African-American spiritual that I once sang in a choir in Toronto. This spiritual is called Witness, and it includes the following lines:

"Nicodemus was a man who desired to know how a man can be born when he is old. Christ told Nicodemus as a friend, “Man, you must be born again." He said, marvel not, be wise, repent, believe and be baptized.” Yet another song of faith.

All of us here today have gone through many baptisms by God's Holy Spirit. This is one of the reasons we are confident that we have come from God's Love, we live by the power of God's Love, and we will return to God's Love.

God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that the world might be saved, and so that you and might be saved as well.

And so we cannot keep from singing.